Beyond the "Vanilla Box"


By Peter S. Nicholson '91

Photographs By Paul Warchol

Architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld '76 dreams of opera boxes. A four-story outdoor wall of them overlooking an otherwise unbounded space that includes a stage.

His obsession for the last several years, the Knickerbocker Residence, is a single-room occupancy facility that also houses services for mentally ill homeless veterans in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood.

At first consideration the dream and the obsession seem disparate--private boxes for outdoor theater and housing for the homeless. But both are rooted in his desire to explore the intersection of private and public spaces, an interest born as early as 1976, when the native Texan spent a year at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City.

"The program changed my life," says Kirschenfeld, who found himself in the midst of the most interesting architects of the day. Among them was Aldo Rossi, whom Kirschenfeld cites as a major influence, and with whom he later apprenticed. During that propitious year Kirschenfeld also met a like-minded student, Andrew Bartle. After their year at the institute, the two earned master's degrees at Princeton, where the school's renowned faculty reinforced the future partners' attraction to urban public works.

Kirschenfeld and Bartle each worked for several firms before they decided to form their own, Architrope, in 1986. Kirschenfeld admits their first forays into the public sector were prompted as much by the private sector's lack of work in the late '80s as they were by the partners' interest in public projects. Since neither man had experience getting public-sector jobs, they had no idea how to tap into government contracts. Kirschenfeld took on the task of making cold calls and sending out letters, an arduous process that garnered a series of feasibility studies--for little to no pay--for the New York State Office of Mental Health. Spurred on by Governor Mario Cuomo's 1990 promise to provide housing and services for thousands of New York's mentally ill homeless people, the office had started a "service-enriched" program combining on-site programs, such as counseling and medication management, with private apartments and communal spaces. Kirschenfeld's task was to investigate the feasibility of modifying an existing building to house all the required elements. He discovered doing so would be difficult--just meeting the plumbing requirements for each apartment's full bath and kitchenette would be a nightmarish undertaking. He also discovered that, if he employed prefabricated materials, modular building techniques, and simple thrift, he could build new units for the same amount of money.

"It was a matter of convincing a client that your lack of experience is an advantage."

When Kirschenfeld and Bartle approached the Office of Mental Health in 1991 with a proposal to design and build a service-enriched prototype, they needed to convince the state to fund a new construction and to prove themselves worthy of the design commission. They prepared volumes of bound proposals proving they could successfully complete the building, and that Architrope would lavish more attention on the project than other, larger firms might.

"It was a matter," explains Kirschenfeld, "of convincing a client that your lack of experience is an advantage."

He describes those hours of pro bono work as an act of faith. "We can't compete with bigger firms for larger institutional projects, so we have to sneak our way into them."

Their tactic seemed successful when they received the state's initial approval. Kirschenfeld located a building site and drafted a detailed feasibility study only to have those additional hours of uncompensated effort dismissed when plans to purchase the land fell through. That wasn't the first obstacle Architrope encountered in a project fraught with bureaucratic hurdles, aesthetic disagreements, and public censure, nor would it be the last. For Kirschenfeld the incident was one of many defining moments, challenging him personally and professionally. "I discovered I was a lot more resilient and persistent than I thought I would be," he says. Despite intense frustrations, "we were committed to building in the urban fabric, and we were too idealistic to look at the bottom line and stop."

He started the entire search process over. The partners' idealism seemed warranted when the state purchased the second site, but then misplaced when the state wavered about moving ahead with the project. Finally, when Services for the Underserved, Inc., the not-for-profit organization that sponsored the project, acting as developer and property manager, argued on behalf of Architrope's plan, the contract was signed.

Kirschenfeld and Bartle proposed many versions before the final design was agreed upon. The Office of Mental Health didn't want a beautiful building; they wanted an ordinary one, a "vanilla box" Kirschenfeld recalls their saying. But the architects wanted to go beyond a vanilla-box design; they wanted a building the residents and staff would be comfortable in, even proud of. And more than anything, they wanted to create a home for the homeless, not a generic living space.

"These people usually feel like outcasts because they're made to feel that way," says Kirschenfeld.

Fitting the facility into its surroundings was an important design consideration. With construction completed one can see that, while the building is obviously new, the complex doesn't look out of place. The Knickerbocker exudes a sense of permanence and solidity, factors important not only to the building's residents, but also to residents of the surrounding neighborhood, which has seen its share of decay and neglect.

People living in Bushwick weren't happy when they discovered the purpose of the building. They felt they were being dumped on, says Kirschenfeld, who encountered the neighbors' anxiety, concern, and anger.

The State of New York was under no obligation to obtain community approval before choosing a location for the facility. But Services for the Underserved held a community forum where one of the most popular topics--second only to concerns and questions about the veterans who would be living there, most of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder--was if the facility would have any jobs for them, says Kirschenfeld. In fact, people would seek him out at the site to inquire about work. Services for the Underserved draws about 25 percent of its staff from the surrounding neighborhood.

"We were committed to building in the urban fabric, and we were too idealistic to look at the bottom line and stop."

Creating the building he wanted while pleasing the Office of Mental Health, Services for the Underserved, Knickerbocker residents and staff, and Bushwick residents was a challenging process. Besides meeting hundreds of state regulations, he had to find ways to stretch the potential of low-budget construction. To obtain better fixtures, the architect worked with suppliers, convincing them to lower their rates on materials. He omitted as many common institutional fixtures as possible. Instead of the usual emergency light boxes, Kirschenfeld calls them "three-headed monsters," the light fixtures contain, and conceal, the required emergency-light units. He quietly added six inches to the standard height of the apartment ceilings, then laid low and failed to point out the change. The extra half foot, albeit a modest gain, significantly opens up the units' otherwise tight dimensions.

The first-floor communal areas, all of which are oriented along the south-facing garden, boast 11-foot-high ceilings and receive an abundance of natural light. The recessed court and pavilion-like main entrance provide additional light, and the airiness the arrangement provides is not only pleasing, it is cost-effective as well, eliminating the need for mechanical ventilation and lighting of the corridors.

Construction took 14 months, and the building was finished on time, in March 1995, and under budget for $2.8 million ($117 a square foot). But letting go of the project proved difficult for Kirschenfeld. The building's completion was the end of an all-consuming project, "three years of my life, night and day," he says.

Even worse than his personal withdrawal was the realization that, while the Knickerbocker was the State of New York's first new service-enriched facility, it might very well be the last. Kirschenfeld had believed that if he did a good job, more facilities would follow. Indeed, one of his design priorities had been flexibility, so that the Knickerbocker plan could be adapted to serve populations with other needs, such as drug abusers, the elderly, and AIDS patients.

Despite the project's many frustrations and challenges, Kirschenfeld doesn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative when asked if he would undertake a similar project. Although the project ended up being "almost everything" he wanted it to be, he knew the real test would come when the residents and staff occupied the space and the building started to function.

Not long after the Knickerbocker opened, Kirschenfeld was showing the project to an architectural reporter. One of the residents approached and asked if he had designed the building. Kirschenfeld, somewhat guarded and expecting the worst, said he had. "It really seems like you had your heart in this place," said the resident. Somewhat surprised, Kirschenfeld asked why. "Feels like home," came the reply.

Peter S. Nicholson is a writer and designer currently studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design.

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